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The bond between Rick Byrd and Casey Alexander crosses rivalry lines

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There may not be a rivalry in all of college basketball more unique than the Battle of the Boulevard, which pits Belmont against Lipscomb, two schools that are located all of 2.7 miles apart on Belmont Boulevard in Nashville, TN.

It dates back to 1953, and over the course of the last 60 years, the two programs have squared off more than 130 times despite the fact that there was a seven-year hiatus in the late-’90s and early-’00s. But to get an idea of just what this rivalry means to Bruin and Bison fans, all you need to know is the story of their matchup on Feb. 17th, 1990.

At the time, Lipscomb was a powerhouse in the NAIA, winning national titles and helping Don Meyer collect 665 of his 923 career wins. In 1989, they were 38-1 heading into the league tournament when an upstart Belmont program, coached by Rick Byrd, upset the Bisons and kept them out of the NAIA national tournament. The following season, with both programs sitting in the top five of the NAIA rankings with a combined record of 27-1, Belmont was asked to move their home game to Memorial Gym on Vanderbilt’s campus because of the demand for tickets.

15,399 fans packed inside Memorial Gym. More than 16,000 tickets were sold. The fire marshall shut the doors, banning ticket holders from entering.

All for a regular season NAIA game.

That attendance number is still a record.

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Casey Alexander was at that game at Memorial Gym. He was a senior in high school, and one of his teammates was already committed to Belmont. They had a game that night, but hopped in a car immediately after the buzzer sounds — still in their uniforms — and caught the final seven minutes of the 124-107 Lipscomb win.

Alexander would eventually commit to Belmont as well. He played for four years, lettering in each season, before becoming a member of Byrd’s staff upon graduation. He became the associate head coach in 2002 and had completed a full two decades as a member of the Belmont program before taking over as head coach at Stetson prior to the 2011-2012 season.

He’s a member of the Belmont Hall of Fame, and even played a pivotal role in what ended up being the most important move as a basketball program.

“Casey played a large role in our move from the NAIA to Division I,” Byrd said by phone on Sunday afternoon, “I’ve said it often that he pulled me and pushed me into that era. We had a good thing, and I was pretty happy coaching from October to March and getting to play golf in the summer. You can’t do that as easily in Division I.”

Outside of Byrd, there is no one that is more Belmont more than Alexander.

So you can imagine the reaction on Sunday when Alexander was officially named the new head coach at Lipscomb.

“I can’t tell you how good it feels to be home at Lipscomb,” Alexander said. “That’s the way that I feel and the way that I’m approaching this mission.”

“He contacted me very early on about the job and said he was interested,” Philip Hutcheson, Lipscomb’s athletic director and a former all-american for the Bisons, said with a laugh. “I kind of thought to myself, ‘Well, I don’t know’ as I was thinking about his resume a little bit. I thought this’ll be interesting.”

Steve Wojciechowski played for four seasons at Duke, winning ACC titles and earning accolades like Honorable Mention All-America and National Defensive Player of the Year, before joining the Duke staff two years after graduating. Since then, he’s become the associate head coach, been on staff for two runs to the national title and emerged as a contender to replace Mike Krzyzewski if and when he finally decides to retire.

Now imagine if Wojo was named Roy Williams’ replacement as head coach at North Carolina.

For the folks around Belmont and Lipscomb, that’s the kind of surprise that this hire has elicited.

“[They] were very similar players,” Byrd said. “Casey was an NAIA player, he couldn’t have done at Duke what Wojciechowski did, but their roles as leaders and tough little guards were very, very similar.”

“I’m sure Casey was pretty easy to dislike from the Lipscomb point of view.”

What would college-aged Casey have said had you told him he’d be coaching Lipscomb in 2013?

“I think he would have been as much in shock as most people were when they heard he’s going to be now. It’s just unusual,” Byrd said with a laugh.

And that’s what makes this rivalry so unique. Lipscomb may have hesitated in hiring Alexander — their coaching search went on for 40 days — but they ended up bringing in a guy that was probably the best fit for their program.

It’s inarguable that the Bruins have overshadowed the Bisons in recent years. They’ve been to six NCAA tournaments in the past eight seasons. They won the Atlantic Sun regular season title in five of their last seven years in the league (finishing second the other two) before getting an invitation to the stronger Ohio Valley Conference prior to last season. The Bruins won the OVC last year as well.

Lipscomb? Well, they made the 2006 NIT and lost in the first round.

No one knows the ins-and-outs of Belmont’s blueprint for success like Alexander. In a city where sports are secondary to music and food, college basketball isn’t the most important sport, and there are already two nationally relevant college hoops teams, a mid-major program like Lipscomb needs to think outside the box when making a hire.

That’s precisely what they did.

If you can’t beat ’em and you can’t join ’em, you might as well try to replicate ’em. And in all actuality, the similarity between the two programs is one of the things that attracted Alexander to the job.

“The truth is all that I liked about Belmont is the reason that I wanted to be at Lipscomb,” Alexander said. “They’re very similar. I think we can do the same things. I think I can be myself, I can coach the way that I want and I can coach the kind of people that I want. There aren’t that many places that are like that. It’s a pretty unique environment and it’s the one that I wanted to be in.”

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When Alexander stepped to the podium at his introductory press conference, the first people he recognized and thanked were his family. His wife, his kids, his parents, his in-laws. Everyone. And after thanking his new bosses and recognizing those that gave him this opportunity, Alexander proceeded to thank the man that set him on this career path.

“Outside of those that share [my DNA], there’s not one person anywhere that’s made me more the man I am today than Rick Byrd,” Alexander said, while choking up. Byrd crossed enemy lines to attend and support his former player and assistant coach. There are few coaches in the country that are as universally respected as Byrd is, and one of the reasons for that is his unconditional support for former members of the program. It doesn’t matter why someone wants to leave or where they want to go, Byrd is going to help them follow through.

Even if it means watching one of his protégés take over his program’s biggest rival.

“When I first started talking to him about this job,” Alexander said, “you can imagine it was probably like a lot of you, a lot of raised eyebrows and so forth. But it took one conversation, literally, for him to forget where it was and who it was. Because all he cares about is what’s best for the people that he has worked with.”

The way Alexander tells it, playing Belmont as the coach at Lipscomb will be easier for him than playing Belmont during his first season at Stetson. It was the first basketball season since he was in high school that he wasn’t a member of the Bruins in one form or another, and he had literally recruited every player on the Bruin team.

It’s a tough sell, however; Alexander’s very first game on the Lipscomb sideline will come against Belmont.

For Byrd, having Alexander on the opposite bench will actually make the rivalry more tolerable.

“People that know me know that I haven’t really enjoyed the rivalry,” Byrd said. “It’s hard to enjoy it because it means so much to people on our side and their side.”

“But I really think with Casey there it’s almost going to be easier for me. I like to compete and coach against guys that I think have the kind of class that Casey has. Those are the people I respect. I don’t like to lose to anybody, but I’d much rather lose to folks that I think are going about it in a proper way.”

Byrd can be confident that Alexander will be one of those people.

That’s what he spent 20 years teaching Alexander to do.

You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.

Is Gonzaga a fraud? Did Gonzaga need to lose? Answering key Zags questions after BYU loss

SPOKANE, WA - FEBRUARY 25:  The BYU Cougars celebrate their 79-71 victory over the Gonzaga Bulldogs at McCarthey Athletic Center on February 25, 2017 in Spokane, Washington.  (Photo by William Mancebo/Getty Images)
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There are going to be a lot of questions asked about Gonzaga following their loss to BYU late on Saturday night

We answer all of those questions for you right here:

Is Gonzaga a fraud?: So let me get this straight: You think that Gonzaga is a fraud because, after winning 29 straight games and totally outclassing everyone in their conference for two months, they lost to a program that has beaten them four times in the last four years? Come on.

The Zags are still sitting atop KenPom’s efficiency ratings. They’re still sitting atop Sagarin’s ratings. They’re still the second-favorite team to win the national title, according to Vegas Insider’s futures. The team at the top of that list, Duke, took a similarly awful loss at home earlier this year, falling to an N.C. State team that has won one game in the six weeks since. You might have asked if Duke was a fraud then. You would’ve been wrong about that, too. West Virginia lost at home to Oklahoma earlier this year. Are they frauds, too?

The fact of the matter is that the Zags blew a 16-point lead at home to a team that lost to San Diego earlier this year. That’s really bad. No one is trying to sugar coat it. It’s also the first time this season that they’ve put out this kind of a performance. The first time in 29 games. The first time in four months.

Weird things happen in college basketball. This is probably one of them.

Did Gonzaga need to take a loss before the start of the tournament?: No.

I hate that line of thinking. Taking a loss is not some kind team-defining wake-up call, especially not when it’s a program like Gonzaga, a program that is defined as much by their lack of March success as anything. Fair or not, that’s how the Zags are viewed nationally, even if that perception — as my buddy Gary Parrish of CBS Sports detailed here — is inaccurate based on the actual tournament results. But the fact remains that this program has never been to a Final Four. Wichita State has. Butler has. VCU has. Those are the teams from outside the establishment that have played in April.

Gonzaga has not

And that is the monkey on this team’s back.

Yes, having a ‘1’ in the loss column is going to take some of the attention and some of the pressure off in March, but that’s not going to change the fact that this is the best Gonzaga team that Mark Few has ever had. That’s going to be the narrative enveloping this team in March, and heading into the tournament with a loss isn’t going to change that.

SPOKANE, WA - FEBRUARY 25: Head coach Mark Few of the Gonzaga Bulldogs works from the sideline in the second half against the BYU Cougars at McCarthey Athletic Center on February 25, 2017 in Spokane, Washington. BYU defeated Gonzaga 79-71. (Photo by William Mancebo/Getty Images)
Head coach Mark Few (Photo by William Mancebo/Getty Images)

Are they still going to be a No. 1 seed?: Probably.

The Zags would have been a lock to be a No. 1 seed out west had they entered Selection Sunday without a loss to their name. Barring some kind of insanity, they will probably still be a No. 1 seed if they can win the WCC tournament, especially if that title includes another win over Saint Mary’s. Where things get tricky is if the Zags drop a game in the WCC tournament. In that case, whoever ends up winning the Pac-12 tournament will probably have a strong argument to be seeded above the Zags.

Can they be trusted to win a national title?: This is where things get tricky.

I think the idea of needing to take a loss late in the season is dumb, but I do subscribe to the thinking that Gonzaga needed to be tested in a close game before taking a loss means that their season is over. The Zags hadn’t trailed in the second half for 15 straight games before Saturday, and it showed. They lacked poise down the stretch. They made defensive errors. They turned the ball over. They struggled to find good shots in their offense. For lack of a better way to phrase it, the Zags looked overwhelmed by the moment.

Will they learn from this? Because they need to.

But there’s more to it than just having to learn. The concern with this Gonzaga team is whether or not they have the guard play to be able to create offense down the stretch against a set, elite defense. BYU’s defense is not what one would call elite. If the Zags cannot score against them down the stretch, what are they going to do against some of the best back courts in the country?

No. 1 Gonzaga loses their first game of the season at home to BYU

SPOKANE, WA - FEBRUARY 25: Head coach Dave Rose of the BYU Cougars works from the sideline in the first half against the Gonzaga Bulldogs at McCarthey Athletic Center on February 25, 2017 in Spokane, Washington. (Photo by William Mancebo/Getty Images)
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The streak is over.

Despite jumping out to an 18-2 lead on BYU in The Kennel, No. 1 and previously undefeated Gonzaga found a way to lose their first game of the season late on Saturday night, falling 79-71 to the Cougars behind 29 points and 11 boards from Eric Mika.

Tyler Haws added 17 points and Elijah Bryant chipped in with 14, but this game was less about BYU than it was about Gonzaga.

The concern with this Zags team is that whether or not they have the guard play to be able to create offense in critical moments, and on Saturday, that looked like one of their biggest issues. Gonzaga’s offense went dead down the stretch. If they weren’t getting shots in transition, they were trying to run their sets through Przemek Karnowski in the post. That’s not an awful idea — he’s awesome — but BYU is not a good defensive team. If Nigel Williams-Goss and Josh Perkins struggled with their ability to beat Nick Emery and T.J. Haws off the dribble and couldn’t find a way to finish around Eric Mika and a member of BYU’s football team, what happens when they go up against, say, De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk or Frank Mason and Devonte’ Graham?

It’s a real concern, and every got a glimpse of that on Saturday night.

The other problem: Was I the only one that thought the Zags looked a little tight down the stretch, like they weren’t comfortable playing in a close game like that? Gonzaga shoots 73.8 percent from the free throw line on the season and shot 16-for-29 on Saturday. They’re 32nd nationally in three-point shooting and finishing Saturday 3-for-16 from beyond the arc. They missed makeable shots in the post. No one stepped up and took control down the stretch. Who is the alpha-dog?

Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but that’s what the view looked like from my couch.

As far as how Gonzaga’s national title hopes are affected by this, I’m not too concerned. I think ditching the pressure of chasing a perfect season will probably be a net positive in the long run, and if anything, this loss made it painfully obvious for Mark Few what he needs to work on with this team. I don’t buy into the idea that “you need to lose” before the tournament, but I do think Gonzaga needed to get tested like this before the losses meant the end of their season.

The biggest concern is going to be whether or not this costs Gonzaga a No. 1 seed, but I still don’t think that it does, at least not yet. I’m not sure that Oregon, Arizona or UCLA has surpassed them, and the gap between Baylor and the No. 1 seed line only gets bigger with each passing loss. The Zags should be a No. 1 seed if they win the WCC tournament.

And to be frank, this loss doesn’t change the way that I feel about Gonzaga. They still are one of the two or three best teams in college basketball, a team that is good enough to win a national title.

But what this loss does do is make me less confident in the ability of the Zags to get it done.

Because all the issues we talked about with Gonzaga came to fruition Saturday night:

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No. 5 UCLA dominates offensive boards to edge No. 4 Arizona

EUGENE, OR - DECEMBER 28: Bryce Alford #20 of the UCLA Bruins hits a shot over Dylan Ennis #31 of the Oregon Ducks during the second half of the game against the Oregon Ducks at Matthew Knight Arena on December 28, 2016 in Eugene, Oregon.  (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
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TUCSON, Ariz. — Thomas Welsh scored 12 of his 14 points in the second half and No. 5 UCLA dominated the offensive boards to beat No. 4 Arizona 77-72 in a Pac-12 showdown Saturday night.

The Bruins (26-3, 13-3) snapped Arizona’s 21-game home court winning streak and dropped the Wildcats (26-4, 15-2) into a tie with Oregon for first place in the Pac-12 heading into the final week of the regular season. The Ducks hold the tiebreaker by beating Arizona in the teams’ only meeting.

UCLA, avenging a 96-85 home loss to Arizona on Jan. 21, trailed 53-49 at the half but took control with a 19-4 second-half run.

Allonzo Trier scored a career-high 28 for the Wildcats. Parker Jackson-Cartwright added 11, and Lauri Markkanen had 10 for Arizona.

Five players reached double figures for the Bruins, led by Bryce Alford’s 15. TJ Leaf and Aaron Holiday added 12 apiece, and Lonzo Ball had 11 along with eight assists.

UCLA had 19 second-chance points to Arizona’s four. In the second half, the Bruins outrebounded the Wildcats 9-1 on the offensive boards.

The Bruins switched to a zone most of the second half and stretched the lead to 11 twice late in the game, the last at 73-62 on Welsh’s’ inside basket with 4:38 to play before Arizona managed one final charge, finishing the game on a 10-4 run.

Markkanen’s two free throws cut the Bruins’ lead to 75-72 with 29.2 seconds to play. Holiday missed the first of a one-and-one free throw opportunity and Arizona had a chance to tie it but Kadeem Allen, with a dislocated pinkie finger on his shooting hand, threw up an air ball from 3-point range.

After trailing by as many as seven points, Arizona outscored the Bruins 10-1 over the last 2 1-2 minutes of the first half to lead 43-39 at the break. Jackson-Cartwright scored seven in the surge.

UCLA took the lead for good, 54-53, on Welsh’s basket with 12:52 to play.

REVENGE

With the victory, UCLA had come back to beat all three teams that have beaten them this season. After a two-point loss at Oregon on Dec. 28, the Bruins came back to beat the Ducks in Los Angeles 82-79 on Feb. 9.

USC upset the Bruins 84-76 on Jan. 25 but UCLA came back to rout the Trojans 102-70 on Feb. 18.

PAC-12 REMATCH?

The outcome in Tucson could set the stage for a rematch between the two teams in the semifinals of the Pac-12 tournaments.

Assuming, both teams win out, Arizona would be the tournament’s No. 2 seed and UCLA the No. 3. Oregon would get the No. 1 seed and, barring upsets, would face the UCLA-Arizona winner in the conference title game.

UP NEXT:

UCLA: The Bruins return home to face Washington on Wednesday night.

Arizona: The Wildcats play their final regular-season game of the season at Arizona State on Thursday.

No. 5 UCLA wins at No. 4 Arizona thanks to defense, rebounding?

TUCSON, AZ - FEBRUARY 25:  Lonzo Ball #2 of the UCLA Bruins moves the ball upcourt during the second half of the college basketball game against the Arizona Wildcats at McKale Center on February 25, 2017 in Tucson, Arizona. The Bruins defeated the Wildcats 77-72.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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The Showtime UCLA Bruins, the team that has defined the pace-and-space movement in college basketball, the nation’s most lethal offensive attack, landed their second elite road win of the season on Saturday night, going into Tucson and knocking off No. 4 Arizona thanks to their ability to grind out stops defensively, milk the clock and crash the offensive glass.

Yeah.

Who saw that happening?

The fifth-ranked Bruins avenged a beatdown that they took at the hands of Arizona a month ago, going into the McKale Center and handing the Wildcats just their second Pac-12 loss of the season, 77-72. The difference came in the second half, with just under 15 minutes left, when head coach Steve Alford made the change from a man-to-man defense to a 3-2 zone that just had Arizona completely flummoxed. The rhythm that the Wildcats had offensively completely disappeared, but that wasn’t just the work of UCLA’s defense.

Part of it was their offense, too.

Let me digress, for a second: Part of what makes Virginia’s defense so consistently successful is that the Cavaliers make you work on the defensive end of the floor, using up as much of the shot clock as possible. The reason is mostly that Tony Bennett wants his team to control pace and to work the ball around until they have the perfect shot, not just a good shot, but the by-product is that is just takes the air out of the ball for the team that is forced to spend that much time defending. Every. Single. Possession.

This is what UCLA started doing. If they weren’t getting layups in transition, they were running their sets, working the ball into Thomas Welsh and T.J. Leaf, trying to get Lonzo Ball isolated against the smaller Parker Jackson-Cartwright, milking the clock for all that it was worth.

That was before the offensive rebounds.

TUCSON, AZ - FEBRUARY 25:  TJ Leaf #22 of the UCLA Bruins attempts a shot between Dusan Ristic #14 and Rawle Alkins #1 of the Arizona Wildcats during the first half of the college basketball game at McKale Center on February 25, 2017 in Tucson, Arizona.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

UCLA grabbed nine of them in the second half — Arizona half just seven defensive rebounds in total, including three straight at the end of the game — and scored 14 second chance points in the second half. These weren’t just tip-ins at the rim. These were hustle plays, UCLA beating out Arizona’s big men to secure a board and work 30 more seconds off of the clock. Those are the back-breakers. Those are the plays that allow a visiting team to keep momentum in their favor and keep the home crowd from getting into the game. Those are the plays that helped prevent Arizona from looking like they had any clue how to attack a zone in the second half.

And that’s just not what we’ve become accustomed to seeing the Bruins do this season.

They run and they chuck threes and they let Lonzo Ball do what he can do and they don’t play much defense. That’s exactly who they were in the first half. They won this game because that’s who they weren’t for the final 15 minutes.

It brings us to a fascinating situation with the Pac-12.

Only one team from the conference is going to get a top four seed in the West Region. Whether it’s a No. 1, 2, 3 or 4 seed, you will only see one of Arizona, UCLA and Oregon — all of whom have essentially locked up a top three seed at this point — in the same bracket as Gonzaga on Selection Sunday. That’s how the bracketing rules work. This is incredibly advantageous because of where their games would be played: In Sacramento (or Salt Lake City) the first weekend, San Jose the second weekend and Phoenix for the Final Four. Not only would all of those games be fairly local — particularly for UCLA and Arizona — but they would be played on West Coast time, an underrated advantage for teams who don’t have to readjust their body-clock to a 10 p.m. ET tip-off time.

The only way that this scenario wouldn’t play out is if a Pac-12 team climbs up to the No. 1 seed line where undefeated Gonzaga also lurks, but as of today — which is a long, long, LONG way from Selection Sunday — it seems like those four No. 1 seeds are pretty set in stone.

UCLA has now won at Kentucky and at Arizona. That’s the best pair of road wins of any team in college basketball. They beat Oregon at home. They’re 26-3 on the season. If they’re going to win the Pac-12 tournament title, they’re probably going to have to go through Arizona and Oregon to do it.

And if they pull that off, the Bruins could very well end up being the top seed coming out of the conference.

They wouldn’t have to leave California until the Final Four in Phoenix.

And had they lost at Arizona on Saturday, I’m not sure it would have been possible.

So while the Bruins were already more-or-less out of the Pac-12 regular season title running, this win had oh-so-much more meaning that simply quieting a rival on their home floor.

No. 3 Kansas clinches outright Big 12 regular season title

AUSTIN, TX - FEBRUARY 25: Frank Mason III #0 of the Kansas Jayhawks drives around Andrew Jones #1 of the Texas Longhorns at the Frank Erwin Center on February 25, 2017 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Chris Covatta/Getty Images)
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AUSTIN, Texas — Josh Jackson scored 18 points and Frank Mason III added 16 to help No. 3 Kansas beat Texas 77-67 on Saturday night to secure its 13th consecutive Big 12 regular season championship outright.

Devonte Graham and Dwight Coleby added 12 points apiece for the Jayhawks (26-3, 14-2 Big 12) who have won six straight games.

Jarrett Allen led Texas (10-19, 4-12) with 20 points. Andrew Jones added 18 for the Longhorns, losers of five straight games.

Texas committed 15 turnovers, six by guard Kerwin Roach Jr., and Kansas converted them into 28 points.

Kansas used a 12-0 push in the first half to take a 13-point lead before settling for a 40-31 edge at the break. Coleby, a little-used junior forward who averages 1.2 points a game, scored 10 in the half, converting 4 of 5 shots inside. Kansas had a 24-8 edge in points in the paint. His 12 points matched a career best.

Texas shot four air balls and committed nine turnovers in the half — five of them Kansas steals.

The Longhorns cut the lead to five with a 3-point basket by Jacob Young midway through the second half, but Kansas responded with an 8-1 run and eventually led by 15 with less than three minutes remaining. Mason and Jackson scored four points apiece during that span.

BIG PICTURE

Kansas: The Jayhawks have won 12 of their last 13 games against Texas, including seven straight, giving them a 29-8 edge since the Big 12 began competition in 1996-97. Texas did, however finish in a first-place tie with the Jayhawks during two of these 13 straight Kansas Big 12 regular season championships — in 2006 and 2008. The Longhorns beat Kansas in Austin both seasons.

Texas: The Longhorns are 4-4 in Big 12 home games. Before Saturday, their largest margin of victory or defeat was four points.

UP NEXT

Kansas is at home against Oklahoma on Monday. The Jayhawks beat Oklahoma 81-70 on Jan. 10 with Mason scoring 28 points, including five 3-point baskets.

Texas is at Texas Tech on Monday. The Longhorns beat the Red Raiders 62-58 on Feb. 1 in Austin. Eric Davis Jr. made a big 3-point basket with 28.8 seconds remaining for Texas, which does not have a road win this season.